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Expired school food prompts outrage

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 3/29/2011, 6:54 p.m.

Earlier this month, City Councilor At-Large John Connolly discovered expired food in several Boston Public Schools cafeterias. In one kitchen, he found cheese a year past its expiration date, and in another, he found frozen beef from November 2009.

Shocked and appalled by the quality of food being served to the city’s children, Connolly launched an investigation of BPS food services.

After presenting his findings at a city council meeting last week, Connolly held another meeting for students and parents to sound off about their experiences with the district’s school food.

“Expired food would never had made its way into our cafeterias, and ultimately to our children, if Boston Public Schools operated in a fully transparent and accountable manner,” Connolly said to open the meeting. “Instead, the management of the Food and Nutrition Services department failed our children, failed our parents, our teachers, our principals and our cafeteria workers.”

 Christina Tau, a high school student in the district, qualifies for free lunch and breakfast, and always eats her meals at school to help her family save money. “It’s not something you want to eat,” she said of the meals she receives. When she heard about the expired food in BPS cafeterias, she “wasn’t that alarmed.” “It’s sad because I feel like I don’t expect that much anyway,” she said.

City Councillor At-Large Ayanna Pressley also spoke at the hearing, and asked Tau what she and her classmates would eat if they didn’t like what was served at school. Tau responded simply, “we have not eaten.”

Much of the food used to make school meals comes from the United States Department of Agriculture’s commodity food program, which provides subsidized food items in bulk. These products are stored remotely at a warehouse in Wilmington, Mass. until use, but the district’s mismanagement of inventory and finances has led to lots of expired food going unnoticed.

When Connolly’s findings came to light, BPS threw away 3,329 cases of bad food from schools and storage  —  a value of approximately $114,000.

But for Danielle Hedgepeth, mother of five students in BPS schools, these measures still haven’t resolved the district’s food issues. Her kids “come home constantly complaining about the taste,” she explained. “They say that the food is horrible.”

As recently as March 21, well after BPS claimed to rid its schools of old food, Hedgepeth’s children found mold on their muffins. “This pattern is so recurring that they’ve actually stopped eating food they’re being served,” she continued. “Now the concentration is on being hungry as opposed to in-house testing.”

Immediately following Councilor Connolly’s findings, BPS Superintendent Carol Johnson assured the community that “the food we serve to your children is safe and healthy.” A spokesperson for the Food and Nutrition Services department also provided a 2010 USDA memo to back this claim.

“Generally ‘expiration’ dates and ‘use-by’ dates are the last dates that the manufacturer recommends a food item be consumed to ensure peak quality and nutrient retention,” the memo says. “However, there is no regulation requiring that manufacturers mark their products with such dates.”